Officials Highlight Impact Of ‘Engineering With Nature’ Initiative

Shelley Tingle with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) hosted an episode of ERDC Live April 3 that highlighted the advancements and impact of the Corps of Engineers’ Engineering With Nature initiative (EWN), now in its 14th year. The webcast featured Jeff King, EWN’s national lead, and Amanda Tritinger, EWN’s deputy program manager and a research hydraulic engineer.

“The Engineering With Nature initiative started back in 2010, and it has grown exponentially since then,” King said.

King described the essential, unifying message of EWN as collaboration, and that message has really caught on, he said.

“People understood it,” he said. “They got behind it, and we’ve seen tremendous progress as a result. Now we’re moving into implementation.”

Engineering With Nature, as its name indicates, focuses on integrating natural elements into engineering and design projects to maximize benefits, operational efficiency and sustainability. The initiative was first introduced to seven Corps districts and two divisions, which served as a sort of “proving grounds.” EWN Practice Leads, two focused on coastal projects and two on riverine projects, were embedded in the Corps districts. The EWN team also created a “cadre,” which served as an opportunity for Corps personnel to get involved with the initiative. More than 400 people were part of the EWN cadre.

King and Tritinger described how, over time, EWN has expanded beyond coastal and riverine infrastructure to include partnerships with economics professors, anthropologists and the like, and to tackle topics like how to make infrastructure projects more equitable at the community level. In 2018, the team produced a coffee-table-size book called the Engineering With Nature Atlas, which highlighted more than 50 projects. Volume two highlighted more than 60 projects.

“The more we can share information about the value of these kinds of projects—what it means to be able to have these in landscapes, to be able to show they’re offering engineering benefits but also social and environmental benefits—that becomes such a wonderful way to talk about the importance of these projects and why they matter,” King said.

Volume three of the EWN Atlas, due out next month, will feature international projects, including a beach and dune consultation EWN did in Taiwan. A township there involved in oyster fishing used oyster shells to construct a breakwater.

“This was Engineering With Nature at its finest,” Tritinger said.

The seminar also highlighted how EWN has forged a working relationship with the Department of Defense and, most recently, how ERDC scientists have identified a way to use dredge material to build 3D-printed structures like reefs to restore wildlife habitat and protect shorelines.

“Imagine if we were able to print artificial reef materials with material we’re dredging and placing these interesting geometric designs back into the water to help encourage oyster growth and coral growth,” Tritinger said.

King said that’s just one way EWN could help the Corps of Engineers reach its goal to beneficially use 70 percent of dredge material by 2030, which would be especially crucial in coastal communities that are seeing both subsidence and sea level rise. At present, between 30 percent and 35 percent of dredge material is used beneficially, King said. Beyond that, EWN aims to help projects achieve engineering, ecosystem service and social benefits, he said.

“The intent is, if we can beneficially use that sediment, keep it in the system, then it’s allowed to do what it’s supposed to do, which is nourish these very vital aquatic ecosystems and maintain those marshes so that we’re getting these multipurpose benefits,” King said.

EWN isn’t just standalone nature-based projects, King said. EWN principles can be applied to conventional infrastructure projects as well.

“It’s not an either-or concept here,” King said. “It’s not either we use conventional or we use nature-based solutions. It’s an ‘and’ proposition. It’s ‘both’ in many circumstances.”